Silly season might not have been silly enough for Regan Smith. But that’s OK – for now.
Smith, 31, just signed a one-year extension with JR Motorsports to drive the No. 7 Chevrolet in the NASCAR Nationwide Series again in 2015. Next year will mark his third consecutive season with the organization after getting the boot with Furniture Row Racing in the Sprint Cup Series when it chose 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Kurt Busch to replace him.
Returning to the team wasn’t a bad decision; in fact, it was probably the wisest decision he could’ve made. With Sam Hornish, Jr. heading over to Richard Petty Motorsports next year and no openings at any other major team, JR Motorsports was the next best decision for him.
However, he really needs to make next season count – especially if he doesn’t capitalize in 2014.
Entering this season, Smith was beginning his second year in a multi-year deal with team owner by JR Motorports But there was a key addition to the organization for 2014: the team signed Chase Elliott with the help of Rick Hendrick. Hendrick and Elliott went to the NAPA headquarters over the course of the off-season, prompting a crew chief swap within the organization.
Though good for the team as a whole, perhaps Smith lost something courtesy of Elliott’s inclusion.
This year, Smith’s crew chief has been two-time Cup Series winner Ryan Pemberton, and Elliott has been paired with Greg Ives, who will be on top of Earnhardt’s pit box next season in the Sprint Cup Series. Smith has 24 top 10s this season, which is the most in the division, but only seven top 5s as he sits behind his rookie teammate in the championship standings. Since winning the season-opener at Daytona, he has struggled at intermediate tracks – the bread and butter of the Nationwide Series.
At intermediate tracks, the No. 7 team has 12 top-10 results, but Elliott has eight top 5s, giving him the edge in the standings with just a handful of events left in the season.
But next year, Elliott is going to be running a partial Cup Series schedule in Hendrick equipment. Smith will not, at least as of now.
In the midst of his deal with JR Motorsports, Smith has been given multiple opportunities to test Hendrick’s Cup Series equipment. After being ousted from a mid-level Cup ride at the time, showing a high level of consistency has been a key for him. And he’s accomplished at least that, as besides finishing in the top 10 in almost every event, he is just 10 laps behind Ty Dillon for the most laps run all year, and has the second best average finish among full-time drivers.
While Smith hasn’t been competing for wins every week, he has proven that he is capable of running well. Hornish’s move back to the Cup Series alone should give him confidence to get back there himself. Smith has run arguably better than Hornish did, and he has more sponsors compared to the former IndyCar Series champion.
Next year, he’s going to be a top contender for the title once again. That’s a given with the quality of equipment that he steps into each week.
But next year could also be his last with JR Motorsports, certainly evidenced by the one-year deal. To compare, Elliott Sadler has floated around the Nationwide Series for four years, but the closest he got to returning to Cup was replacing an ill Brian Vickers at the end of 2013. That’s not what Smith needs, especially at his age. It wouldn’t be the worst thing for him to win a few titles in the Nationwide Series if he can’t get a Cup Series deal, but at 31, there is still time for him to get back there.
If he were to leave the team after next year, where could he go?
Martin Truex, Jr.‘s contract is up at the end of next year, and if he has another low quality year like 2014, he could be out of a ride. A reunion between Smith and FRR is possible and he could even bring some sponsorship along.
But a more lucrative possibility would be getting a seat at Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. They have an alliance with Hendrick, and the team has clearly turned the corner with Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray. Both cars missed the Chase for the Sprint Cup this year, but there have been plenty of bright spots for the organization, especially in the Chase. However, it would take a chunk of sponsorship to convince Ganassi to start a third car. Remember, they also have Dylan Kwasniewski signed as a developmental driver, so they might be waiting to expand for him. Hey, why not keep the seat warm with Smith in it?
The main thing for Smith is going to be winning a handful of races next year. He is capable of doing it. We saw him do it in 2013, and if he does it in 2015, the future could be very rewarding with a full-time Cup deal.